Archive for Monday, April 29, 2002

Sesame Street’s Elmo catches lawmakers’ ear at Congressional hearing

April 29, 2002

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— Tickle me, Congress.

In a small congressional hearing room crowded with health and education activists in search of government money, the supplicant with the star power last week was an oh-so-precious, 3-foot-tall, red fuzzy Muppet with a voice somewhere between syrup and helium.

The cuddly cutie from "Sesame Street" made a splash, appearing before a House Appropriations subcommittee to request $2 million for children's music programs.

"Please, Congress, help Elmo's friends find the music inside them," Elmo said.

Washington's flirtation with the entertainment industry dates to the 1960s, when Gloria Swanson, married six times, sought a cut in income taxes paid by singles. She helped persuade Congress to pass what is now known as the "marriage penalty."

Policy-peddling stars have since become a common feature in the halls of Congress. Some have intensely personal causes, such as Michael J. Fox, who has Parkinson's disease. Other stars' connections to issues are more tenuous. Actresses Jessica Lange and Sissy Spacek testified in 1985 on behalf of bankrupt farmers, on the strength of their film roles as farmer's wives.

In the past few weeks, politicians in Washington have sidled up to Irish rocker Bono and pop star Elton John. Earlier this year actress and model Christie Brinkley testified about nuclear safety.

"The circumstance of the United States today is that celebrities are opinion leaders," said Robin Bronk, executive director of the Creative Coalition, an organization of arts and entertainment figures who advocate social and political causes.

"It works when it makes sense," she said. "Whether it's Bono or Elmo, any celebrity has to be invested in that issue, personally, professionally, publicly."

"Only in Washington would Elmo be a figure of credibility and legitimacy," said conservative political analyst Marshall Wittmann. "Elmo has higher poll ratings than most members of Congress. They like to be in his reflective glory."

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